Atmospheric electricity and the biosphere

The atmosphere is host to a complex electric environment, ranging from a global electric circuit generating fluctuating atmospheric electric fields to local lightning strikes and ions. Many environmental processes may interact with atmospheric electricity. Such processes include, but are not limited to, earthquakes, atmospheric ions, clouds and climate, sun-earth interactions, air pollution, lightning etc. Contemporary research approaches have remained fragmented, limiting our understanding of the interplays at system level.  

To overcome the lack of coordination of different research efforts in these fields, COST Action Atmospheric electricity network: Coupling with the earth system, climate and biological systems (ELECTRONET) had as main objective to improve knowledge of the multiple effects and interconnections of the atmospheric electric field, including those on biological systems, and its interconnections with other important components of the earth system. To this end, a global atmospheric electricity monitoring network for climate and geophysical research, and a multidisciplinary system approach were launched, involving atmospheric, earth, and space scientists, meteorologists, biologists and physicians aiming at the improvement of our understanding of a number of electrical processes that lie at the interface of solid earth, environmental, biological, climatic and solar/terrestrial sciences”, says Prof. Kostas Kourtidis of Democritus University of Thrace, who chairs ELECTRONET.  

The Action outcome includes studies of the electrical charge of respirable ambient nanoparticles and its variation with weatherupper atmosphere lightning and investigations of pre-earthquake disturbances in the electrical properties of the upper atmosphere, among others.   

Substantial new evidence emerged during the Action lifetime that variations in the atmospheric electric field may interfere with biological processes, including brain function. The Action’s work recently resulted in the International Journal of Biometeorology publishing the special issue Atmospheric Electricity and Biometeorology” on this topic. 

Studying complex links between atmospheric electricity and biological systems as well as their interactions requires a multi- and transdisciplinary approach that considers concepts and methodologies from disparate scientific disciplines. It is thus essential that knowledge can be shared between different disciplines. Accordingly, Action members developed in this special issue a glossary of relevant terms and concepts that facilitate integration in common research and provide a resource for those seeking an understanding of atmospheric electricity and its links to biological systems. Likewise, to allow for further retrospective analysis of available atmospheric electricity data within the context of biological systems, a semantic approach was developedestablishing a common terminology and an environment for data sharing.  

In the special issue, an overview of the wide array of atmospheric electrical phenomena and their ties to biology is provided, in which conceptual and technical challenges, as well as opportunities for future research, are identified. Furthermore, possible molecular and cellular mechanisms at the basis of atmospheric electromagnetic field bioeffects are presented, showing that multiscale modeling approaches are crucial to understanding whether and how electrical field changes at the molecular level are reinforced across biological scales to the level of an organism. Another article of the collection argues how extremely low frequencies may have provided the evolutionary electrical background at which cellular electrical activity has developedWe propose that over billions of years during the evolutionary history of living organisms on Earth, the natural electromagnetic resonant frequencies in the atmosphere, continuously generated by global lightning activity, provided the background electric fields for the development of cellular electrical activity, says Colin Price of Tel Aviv University, Action member and lead author of the study. Links between electromagnetic fields and neurodegenerative diseases are examined and the role of electromagnetic radiation as a potential non-invasive therapeutic strategy for some neurodegenerative diseases is discussed elsewhere in the collectionIn another study it is shown that the synoptic weather patterns, in addition to temperature, humidity, pressure and wind, affect also the electric state of the atmosphere, thereby identifying an additional important component within a complex interdependent set of physical and biological linkages.  

The work presented in the aforementioned special issue unveils the intimate connectivity of atmospheric electricity with biology and human well-being and highlights the interdisciplinary and complex nature of this research field, in which many exciting and promising new research avenues can lay the foundation for novel empirical research and much needed conceptual and operational frameworks”, says Action member Ellard Hunting of University of Bristol. 

Besides from the special issue mentioned above, work from the Action resulted in the special issue The relations of atmospheric electricity with terrestrial, cosmic and anthropogenic processes: measurement, modelling and forecasting capacity in the journal Science of the Total Environment. 

Article written by ELECTRONET’s team 


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